Ambush at Hang Tree Gulch
by Gary Clifton
The whine of a high-speed Winchester round ricocheted off the rocks next to Tad’s head. Hombre yelped in pain at the shatteringly loud and ominous sound, but canine survival instinct compelled him to stay low.
“Man, Hombre, that was close. Stay, boy.” Henry Paul “Tad” Brannigan, Jr. knew his big, black Newfoundland, Hombre, would understand. His 140 pounds plus of huge, friendly companion — or savage fury, if circumstances required — lay wedged against Tad in the small gully. The dog rolled his big brown eyes upward at Tad as if to say, “I can’t get no smaller, boss.”
At age 12, Tad Brannigan was already showing he would be bigger than his father. The hardware store scale back in Uvalde weighed him at just slightly less than his canine companion. Right now, prospects of growing even one more day older seemed dim. Somebody was trying to kill him.
Another round came crashing in, close, but bouncing up and away harmlessly. It had come from below. Tad, a frontier-hardened son of his Texas Ranger father, realized the plan instinctively. The shooter or shooters intended to hit Hombre or him with a deflected round fired into the small alcove in the rocks where the pair had taken refuge. They’d have to move to do it.
Hugging the limited space, he checked the brand-new, .22-caliber Remington, a single-shot rifle his parents had presented him on his twelfth birthday. The weapon seemed intact, and he had about twenty cartridges in the pocket of his trousers. Although still basically a child, Tad knew his little plunking gun with a barrel length of only 21 inches was not a weapon with which to engage Winchesters in a long-distance gunfight.
Better than nothing, he thought, mirroring the comment his father would have expressed under the circumstances. His father might have added, Just barely.
Another round crashed in, striking above his head and bouncing skyward. His ambushers couldn’t know what, if any weapon he was carrying until he fired back. He decided to lie in wait for a closer look at his assailant or assailants.
“Hombre they’re below us. I heard a man shout... probably at a partner, maybe at a horse. If there’s two, one is gonna try to climb above. If the other tries a shot from below, he’s gonna have to show himself. Reckon I can hit a man in that draw down there with this little rifle?” He twisted in his confined space. “Let’s see how bad you’re hit, boy.”
* * *
It was just past daybreak on an unseasonably warm Saturday morning in late 1884. Tad, with his mother’s reluctant permission, had saddled Thunder, his palomino pony. Elizabeth Brannigan had stuffed four biscuits wrapped in a gingham napkin into his saddlebag. Followed by Hombre, he’d ridden north from the Brannigan Ranch.
Tad had explained to his mother that he’d ride the six miles to the area on the southern end of the Texas Hill Country known as Hang Tree Gulch and take a little target practice. The name of the place was reportedly the scene where several rustlers had been lynched many years ago. In a landscape thick with massive live oak trees, Tad thought there were plenty of locations available to stretch some poor soul’s neck.
When his mother had expressed concern about a 12-year old riding alone in open country, Tad had reminded her he was a Brannigan and would be just fine. He’d donned his wide sombrero and set out on what seemed a carefree, enjoyable day.
Tad had approached Hang Tree Gulch from the south, his new rifle in the saddle scabbard. He had reined Thunder in. Expecting to start shooting practice, he’d pulled his rifle from his scabbard and slipped a round into the chamber. A Winchester round had whizzed in, blowing away his sombrero and narrowly missing taking off the top of his head.
Tad both fell and jumped from the startled pony, his small weapon clutched in hand. Thunder ran off. Tad and Hombre took refuge among the elevated rocks of a small wash nearby. Then another round that barely missed his head crashed into their shelter. Hombre, tough as a mountain lion, had been hit in his left haunch by a bullet fragment.
Tad examined the wound, relieved it was only a scratch. Hombre, twisted to apply the ancient dog-lick-treatment. If the big animal got a chance to retaliate, things would not go well for the shooter.
* * *
Another round hit a foot above Tad, the whine of disintegrating lead whizzing away. “Hombre, they’re holed up behind that big rock across the wash down there. One’s probably trying to climb above us. The other one is still too low to get an angle. He can’t see us and we can’t see him... yet.”
Again, the unintelligible sound of a man’s voice drifted in. There were definitely at least two shooters.
“Hombre, for the one down below to get a shot in on us, he’s gonna have to move to his right. He sticks his head up, maybe I can hit him from up here. They shoot me, you run off somewhere. Wonder why they’re shootin’ at us a-tall.”
Hombre looked at him with doleful eyes, tilting his head from side to side, trying to comprehend. Tad knew full well that if the ambushers shot him, Hombre would stay to the last.
Then one of the assailants called out the answer. “Hey, Mexican! C’mon out. We’ll quit shootin’. All we was a-wantin’ was your horse. He’s run off, but I betcha you can call him back.”
Tad, his thought processes a mirror of his father’s, remained silent. They’d tried to murder him for his horse, and they thought he was Hispanic because of his sombrero. Because of his size, they’d thought he was a man. If he surrendered, sooner or later, they’d murder him out of hand. The son of Henry Paul Brannigan had no intention of cashing in without exacting a toll from his tormentors.
The Winchester barked again. The shot was still high, but Tad could see from the puff of smoke that the shooter had changed his position. The man was trying to get himself positioned to shoot directly into the small gully where Tad and Hombre lay.
“Lay still, boy,” he ordered. “We don’t respond, and maybe they’ll be thinking they’ve shot the both of us. Might make ’em careless.” Tad was surprised he didn’t feel fear, exactly, but a vision of his mother’s face crept into a corner of his mind.
He managed a grip on a small piece of brush, which he dragged atop Hombre and himself as partial camouflage. The morning was still comfortably cool, but Tad was thirsty. Hombre would also soon need water. His canteen, wrapped around his saddle horn, had been lost when Thunder fled. He could call the pony back by whistling, but to do so would probably put Thunder in the bushwhackers’ possession.
He briefly considered giving up the animal, which would probably cause the attackers to move on. But, with the grim determination he’d seen his parents consistently show on the rough Texas frontier, he vowed the cowardly men down below would not get their way without a fight; a Brannigan fight.
And then, slight movement in the buckbrush below. The Winchester shooter had worked his way to a position where he had a partial view into Tad and Hombre’s hiding place. Tad rolled over onto his back and rested the barrel of his little rifle atop the toe of his boot.
Slight movement, then more, and the definite shape of a sliver of a man’s head edged into view below, not a hundred feet away.
My dad would say, “You’ll have to show more target than that to draw fire from me, backshooter.” He waited, ignoring the urge to try for the small target. Then slightly more forehead appeared, then more.
Tad saw the man was a left-handed shooter who was on the wrong side to fire easily around any obstacle. Slowly, but carelessly, the man leaned fully into view to try for a better shot.
Tad and his father had spent many hours on the prairies around their ranch practicing, practicing, practicing. A problem was Tad had always fired the old Henry, a .44-caliber rifle his father had brought home from the Civil War. With the heavy, deadly Henry, he had honed his skill to where his marksmanship was the envy of grown men throughout the area.
But he had fired his new .22 rifle only a few times. The purpose of his trip on this Saturday was to master the weapon. Today was supposed to be a live-fire demonstration of an undeveloped skill.
The man, as he’d gradually exposed himself, had several seconds to survey Tad’s position. Despite the partial brush-cover, he would surely be able to spot Hombre’s big, black form against the light-colored rock background. He shouldn’t miss, given time to take proper aim. Tad needed to act.
Tad carefully aligned the front sight balanced atop his toe with the “V” in the rear sight. Aiming a few inches over the bearded head would allow for gravity droppage. He squeezed the trigger. The faint “pop” sound of the little .22 was basically lost in the vast, barren country. The assailant’s head snapped backward. He twisted and fell forward in full view, face up.
“Hombre, I think we hit him.”
Tad ejected the tiny .22 round and slipped another into the chamber. Carefully drawing a bead on the center of the man’s skull, he waited, then lowered the rifle. The man had not uttered a sound. Had he missed? Was the man playing possum?
The short, sharp explosion of a six-shooter from above said the danger was not over.
“A handgun, Hombre. They only have one Winchester. The man trying to get above us only busted a cap because he saw we’d hit his pal. C’mon, Hombre, let’s slide down this draw before he gets to where he can get a clear shot.”
The raw boy and the large dog reached the downed bushwhacker in seconds. Hombre gave a deadly growl but stood clear of the body. On his back, the dirty, bearded man stared into the morning sun with sightless eyes. Blood oozed from a small hole in the top of his skull.
“My God, Hombre, we’ve killed a man! What’s Mama gonna think?”
Another six-shooter round hit the dust a few feet away.
Tad hid behind the rock the dead man had just used for concealment. “Get behind here, Hombre.”
He reached out, retrieved the man’s Winchester, and felt the man’s trouser pockets. The weapon had two rounds remaining, and the dead man’s pockets were empty. Only then did Tad notice the man was wearing jailhouse slippers instead of boots. From this vantage point, he could see a single, unsaddled plug horse tied to a live oak twenty yards back toward the bushwhackers’ original position.
“Hombre, this pair busted outa jail and got away with one horse and only two guns... and maybe very little ammo.”
Copyright © 2018 by Gary Clifton